HAZMIEH, Lebanon: Eight days before Christmas in 1984, in the midst of the Civil War, the underground bowling alley in Hazmieh finally opened its doors to the public.
Strikes wasn’t the first bowling alley in Lebanon – there were two in west Beirut before the war started – but it was the first fully automatic one.
Instead of pin boys lurking at the end of each lane ready to load the toppled pins into a contraption and lower them down again by hand, Strikes had a machine to do all of that, albeit one given to occasional glitches.
Even better, Strikes was built with Lebanon’s tumult in mind, in the underbelly of a super-sturdy concrete apartment block with a private parking garage below.
“At that time [the mid-1980s] it was full,” the alley’s manager, Georges Bresse, explains with an emphasis that betrays how unlikely such a situation has become now. “People coming here would have to wait half an hour, an hour, just to get their turn, even during the shelling.”
“Once you get here it’s safe.” He gestures to the meter-wide gray beams that crisscross the ceiling.
“It was built to withstand the shelling, it’s all heavy concrete.”
Bresse has been the manager for nearly the entire time it has been open. The man who built the building owned the alley, and initially drafted in Bresse – already a well-known bowling champion – simply to help organize tournaments. Soon, however, Bresse had been hired to run the place full time, or rather, in all his remaining time.
Having taught himself how to bowl while working abroad in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, (“There was not much to do, so we bowled a lot. ... I won 40 trophies”) what had started out as a hobby quickly turned into an all-consuming passion. He chose not to give up his day job, and instead spent his nights moonlighting as the alley’s manager, a bowling instructor and a champion player in his own right.
Regular practice, Bresse says, is the key to getting strikes, something he took to heart so much his “thumb used to be deformed from playing.”
“Some people used to come four or five times a week,” he explains. “They were regulars. Every group would make a team and get sponsors – it was really enthusiastic at that time.”
Like everything in Lebanon, however, things have changed.
Luckily, although the irony of the name “Strikes” has lost some of its potency since the end of the war, the bowling alley has lost none of its charm.
Tucked away near the highway that speeds into the Bekaa Valley, the uninitiated need only look for the large bowling ball sign with the word “Strikes” emblazoned across it and follow the road descending into a parking garage beneath.
Inside, brightly colored balls are neatly lined up, inviting players to find their perfect weight, while bowling etiquette tips on the wall tell visitors: “Bowling is a sport, be one.” Rounds of beer are accompanied by, inexplicably, the latest chart hits.
But this is not a bowling alley for those used to the flashy, cosseted world of trendy modern places. Players keep track of their own points with a pencil and a score sheet and there are no guide railings to be put up. A gutter ball is a gutter ball, and will keep being one until you learn how to bowl better, or ask Bresse for some advice.
For some, this old-fashioned vibe is a welcome one. Unfortunately, the decline of bowling as a competitive sport has been matched by a decline in visitors, at least some of whom presumably prefer the more modern experience offered by other alleys.
“Bowling used to be more of a sport than now,” laments Bresse. “They [players] used to buy their own shoes and balls. There were proper competitions, and there would be leagues with teams with sponsors.”
Now, Bresse said, “We have lockers and people have balls in there that they never come to use.”
Strikes is open 4 p.m.-11 p.m. First game costs LL10,000, and LL5,000 for every game after. For more information, call 05-955-099.